Sunday, August 30, 2020



Fishing regulations are, or at least should be, rooted firmly in science, and tempered by social and economic considerations only to the extent that the science allows.  Ethical issues should be left up to philosophers, poets, and the temper of the times.

But the temper of the times does not shape itself.  It is shaped by events, and the impacts of those events upon people, and upon society as a whole.  John Donne, an early 17th Century English poet, once wrote

“No man is an island,

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main…”

While Donne penned those words to champion the relationship of people to each other, they work just as well to remind us that our actions cannot be viewed in a vacuum; even the smallest thing that we do has implications that touch others.

In a fisheries context, perhaps Donne could have written “No man is an island…every man is a piece of the ecosystem,” as everything we do impacts the web of life in which we, too, reside.

Thus, it’s not enough to say that we follow the law when we go fishing, and only take so many fish as the law allows.  Nor should we heed the oft-heard injunction to “Mind your own business” and pay no attention to the fish that others are taking.  Because in the end, both they and we are part of the same ecosystem, making the fish that others remove from the water, legally or otherwise, necessarily our business, too.

We also must always remember that “legal” is not the moral equivalent of “right,” and that the law often trails ethics by quite a few years.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the ethics of saltwater angling transform.

When I was young, in the late 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were very few regulations governing salt water angling; where I lived, in Connecticut, there was a 16-inch minimum size for striped bass and nothing else.  Most decisions were up to the angler.

So boats came back to dock with garbage cans filled up with bluefish, the anglers asking “Who wants some fish?” even before the boat’s lines were secured.  Fishermen kept winter flounder smaller than the palms of their hands, arguing that “the sweet little ones” made the best eating.  Freezers were cleaned out every spring, when piles of freezer-burned fish made their annual migration to the local landfill.

Elsewhere, many marlin, sailfish, tarpon and even bonefish were caught, killed, and hung up for photos, then tossed back into the sea the following day.  Sharks were also regularly killed and dumped; I recall, even as late as the mid-1980s, going to shark fishing lecture, and hearing the speaker explain how to best dispose of a tiger shark after it was weighed.  “Remember to slit the belly open,” he said, “and get rid of the liver so that it doesn’t float.”

Things have changed a lot since then, but they probably wouldn’t have if anglers had all minded their business, ignored others’ excesses, and made no effort to alter the angling ethos.

Probably nothing in my lifetime changed angler attitudes as much as the striped bass collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Prior to that event, anglers typically ended a successful trip with anywhere from two to two dozen big striped bass in the boat, fish that were often sold the next morning.  Even in my native Connecticut, where such sale was illegal, the majority of the most skillful anglers lined up at the back doors of seafood restaurants and fish markets to offload their catch for cash.

But after the bass collapsed, and anglers realized what they could easily lose, a conservation ethic pervaded many serious striped bass fishermen.  While there are still too many unreformed striped bass anglers out there, people too ignorant, too self-centered or just plain too stupid to understand how their actions can impact the stock, the temper of the times has changed, and conservation has become integrated into the ethos of the striped bass fishery.

We’ve seen the same sort of sea change with fisheries for sharks, billfish, tarpon and such.  While kill tournaments still exist, and a few fish still die for photos, the old “weigh ‘em then dump ‘em” mentality has, by and large, faded away.

That, too, is largely because thoughtful anglers spoke out, and began to condemn those who wasted and abused the resource.  For fishing is, for most anglers, a social activity.  If showing off a good catch wins them accolades, anglers kill fish and weigh them, and have their pictures pinned up on the tackle shop wall; if such behavior only earns them disdain, they’ll take some fish for food, and release the rest, because there is no longer any emotional reward for doing otherwise.

Yet, while dead fish aren’t earning the accolades that they received in the past, too many anglers are unintentionally killing fish of various species that they mishandle and keep out of the water for far too long, in order to obtain Instagram-worthy snapshots.

While no species is immune to such behavior, surf-caught sharks are probably the biggest victims.  They are regularly dragged out on the beach, where the weight of their entire body bears down on their unsupported vital organs.  At that point, the angler will typically straddle the beached fish’s back, grab it by the snout, and bend its head backward, forcing the spine into an unnatural angle to show the world what they already know:  Sharks have teeth.

So it’s probably past time to give photos of ill-handled fish the treatment that they deserve.

While this is a blog about fish and fishing, and I’m highlighting anglers’ misdeeds, bad behavior occurs throughout the outdoor community.  It was a couple of articles in the Mountain Journal, which had nothing to do with salt water, that inspired this essay.

The first, written by an off-road bicycle rider, was titled “Why Wilderness Matters More than Your Desire to Take It.”   In that piece, the author said,

“…I felt like it was my right, my social entitlement, to access this public land by bicycle…

“Something changed within regarding how I think about wilderness.  Chalk that up to the perspective offered by the march of time, a view shaped by seeing so many pristine places become so heavily overused.  Whether a tire tread, a hiking boot or cars crammed into a trailhead parking lot, they all bear the same message:  The consequences of our individual actions ripple beyond ourselves and the present moment.”

Change “wilderness” to “a fish,” “overused” to “overfished,” and add a dead fish to the list of human impacts, and the message is just as applicable to those who fish our salt waters as it is to those who bike the slickrock trails outside Moab, Utah.

The other piece was a little more pointed.  In “It’s Time for Outdoor Recreationists no Not Be Just Takers,” author Lesli Allision observed that,

“Too often throughout human history we’ve repeated a pattern, use up one place or resource and move on to the next.  This public investment [in the Great American Outdoor Act, recently signed into law], however, does not obviate the need for greater personal responsibility or the fact that outdoor recreation is fast becoming another form of consumerism generating industrial scale impacts on our environment and on wildlife.

“We are wiping out the last refugia for wildlife, yet there is no talk of limits to human recreation, only talk of expansion.  Even the ‘Leave no Trace’ messaging of old have been trampled under the stampede for more and more public access…

“We have to recognize that conservation and recreation are not one and the same.  The question needs to be asked:  what are recreationists personally giving back relative to the impacts we are generating?”

Those comments, although addressing land use in the western states, are particularly germane to marine fisheries issues.

“Use up one…resource and move on to the next…”

In the course of my life, I’ve seen the focus of local inshore recreational fisheries change from winter flounder, which were once ubiquitous throughout the year, to summer flounder and bluefish, then to the recovered striped bass population, then back to summer flounder after that stock rebuilt, until now, when stripers, blues and summer flounder are all tough to find, and black sea bass are asked to carry the burden. 

Throughout all of those changes, too many anglers, and most of the recreational fishing industry, turned their back on any concept of personal responsibility for the health of fish stocks, and instead fought needed conservation measures, demanding continued or greater “public access,” and more dead fish on the dock.

In the recent past, we saw some of the biggest saltwater angling organizations in the nation, along with the two largest fishing tackle and boating industry trade groups, urging Congress to pass the so-called Modern Fish Act, a bill that, in its original form, would have provided greater access—that is, more dead fish—while at the same time weakening the conservation requirements underlying the federal fishery management system, and putting the future health of fish stocks at risk.

No sign of “giving back” there…

Do anglers or angler-related businesses ever give anything back?

There are some.  There are the anglers who make the time and the effort to attend fishery management meetings, and learn the intricacies of the management system, not to obtain more dead fish—more “access”—for themselves, but to argue for science-based management measures, so that anglers may enjoy healthy populations of fish well into the future.

And there are members of the recreational fishing industry, such as the American Saltwater Guides Association, Captains for Clean Water, and the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, who spend their time and money advocating for the conservation of coastal resources, and not for more “access” today, because they know that the future of their businesses ultimately depends on the future health of our marine fish stocks.

It’s a start, but it’s not enough.

More anglers, and more angling-related businesses, must stop focusing on their “right” to kill fish today, and begin focusing on their responsibility to ensure that enough fish remain for the next generation of anglers to enjoy long into the future.

For you can only move on from one resource to the next for so long.  At some point, there’s nowhere left to go.

Thursday, August 27, 2020


 Rebuilding the overfished striped bass stock to its target level will not be easy. 

Conservation advocates won’t only be facing the usual resistance from fishermen and from fishing industry spokesmen focused on harvest and short-term gain, and from a risk-tolerant Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that is resistant to change and to making the decisive moves necessary to best assure that recovery of any fish stock, including striped bass.  

This time around, conservative striped bass management is also threatened by the pending Amendment 7 to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, which could, in the wrong people and states get their way, condemn the bass stock to lower abundance and higher fishing mortality for years into the future.

If there is to be any chance of restoring the female spawning stock biomass to its target level, striped bass advocates will have to walk a narrow and difficult path, remaining assertive in the face of strong opposition while maintaining their credibility by steadfastly sticking to the facts surrounding striped bass management and the striped bass fishery.

As part of that essential strategy, conservation advocates must avoid getting bogged down in peripheral issues that are not essential to the effort of rebuilding the striped bass stock, but waste time and effort while casting doubts on the motives and understanding of at least some in the conservation community.

A good example of what not to do is playing out right now in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has the largest commercial striped bass quota of all the coastal states, slightly more than 713,000 pounds.  The state had historically kept its commercial minimum size at 34 inches, the minimum set when Amendment 4 to the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan was adopted in 1989, and left it unchanged even after Amendment 5 to the management plan allowed such size limit to fall to 28 inches.  In 2019, due to a dearth of larger striped bass in the population, Massachusetts commercial fishermen did not come close to landing their entire commercial quota.

This year, after the ASMFC adopted Addendum VI to Amendment 6 of the management plan, which called for an 18 percent reduction in striped bass fishing mortality and established a coastal recreational slot limit of 28 to 35 inches, Massachusetts raised its commercial minimum size to 35 inches.  That one-inch increase facilitated law enforcement efforts, as anyone possessing a bass over 35 inches in length, but not possessing a commercial fishing license, was clearly violating the law.  

But striped bass more than 35 inches long are hard to find this year, at least as hard as 34-inch fish were to catch last year.  As a result, Massachusetts’ commercial fishermen are having a very hard time landing their entire quota.  As of 7:15 this morning, August 27, they had landed only about 263,000 pounds of bass, not quite 36 percent of the quota.

That’s a big change from what went on in the recent past, when Massachusetts’ commercial striped bass fishermen typically caught their entire quota, and occasionally just a bit more, before the Labor Day weekend.

Their failure to come anywhere close to doing that today stands as mute and convincing testimony to the sad state of the bass population.  It’s impossible to catch what just isn’t there, and given that after the dominant year class produced in 2003, it took 8years, until 2011, to produce another one.  In between were some years with average spawning success, and a lot of years with below-average recruitment.  Given that a 35-inch striped bass is typically 9 or 10 years old, the typically sub-par recruitment between 2004 and 2010 is showing up in Massachusetts’ commercial fishery.

In Massachusetts, commercial striped bass fishing is only permitted on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Because they have caught so little of their quota so far this year, Massachusetts is proposing expanding striped bass fishing days to Tuesdays and Thursdays, beginning on September 1, and to every day of the week beginning on October 2, provided that the quota has not been filled by then.

Massachusetts proposed something similar last year, but ultimately decided not to go through with it, in part because of the number of comments that it received in opposition to the idea.  It called for comments on the extra fishing days this year as well; the comment period ended last Tuesday, and everyone is waiting to see what Massachusetts will do.

As was the case last year, various organizations, in particular Stripers Forever, are calling on Massachusetts to take no action on the proposal, and only allow commercial bass fishing on two days each week, throughout the rest of the year.  If Massachusetts decides to take that course, the state’s quota will almost certainly remain unfilled.

Stripers Forever notes that it is

“adamantly opposes this proposal [to increase commercial fishing days], believing that increased commercial fishing pressure on striped bass is a mistake.  In October of 2019, in response to years of diminishing numbers, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) declared that the population of wild Atlantic striped bass was ‘overfished, and overfishing is occurring.’  Commercial and recreational regulations were changed to reduce fishing pressure and begin the process of rebuilding a healthy, sustainable striped bass fishery.

“Massachusetts’ failure to catch its full commercial quota is an indication of the declining quality of the fishery.  In past years the entire [pre-2015] quota of over a million pounds of striped bass was caught within a few weeks.  Furthermore, the minimum commercial size of 35” means nearly all striped bass harvested in Massachusetts are mature, breeding female fish—the very fish needed to propagate the species back to abundance.”

Again, given that the striped bass stock is overfished, any reduction in harvest would be a good thing, and that includes Massachusetts striped bass landings that fall well below the state’s quota.

That being said, Massachusetts’ striped bass fishery is not an existential threat to the stock, probably ranks fairly low in the overall threat matrix, and doesn’t deserve all of the effort that has been focused on it, either this year or last.

The entire commercial fishery, from Massachusetts to NorthCarolina, and including the Chesapeake Bay, is only responsible for about 10 percent of all striped bass fishing mortality.  In addition, the commercial quotas reflect the 18 percent reduction in fishing mortality required by Addendum VI, as well as the earlier 25 percent reduction (20.5 percent in the Chesapeake Bay) imposed by Addendum IV,beginning in the 2015 season.  And if any state exceeds its commercial quota, the overage is taken of that state’s quota for the next fishing year.

The overall commercial striped bass quota established by Addendum VI is a little under 5 million pounds, and the amount of striped bass that remain uncaught in Massachusetts is about 450,000 pounds, or about 10 percent of the overall commercial quota—which in turn makes up only 10 percent of all striped bass fishing mortality.

So what we’re ultimately talking about is 10 percent of 10 percent—that is, a mere 1 percent—of overall striped bass fishing mortality.

That’s just not a big deal, particularly when we’re talking about a quota that already reflects an 18 percent reduction from 2019 figures.

What is a big deal is recreational fishing mortality, which accounts for 90% of all bass killed by fishermen.  But it’s kind of strange, because when it comes to recreational overages—overages, mind you, and not just fishermen catching their allotted quota—the recreational community is remarkably quiet.

For example, there is no commercial striped bass fishery in New Jersey, yet New Jersey still has a commercial quota.  So-called “gamefish” advocates, such as Stripers Forever, claim to be opposed to a commercial striped bass fishery, yet they have never voiced any opposition to New Jersey’s so-called “bonus” stripedbass program, which allows recreational fishermen to kill a portion of thatstate’s commercial quota—even though all of that kill is composed of 24 to28-inch fish, including a preponderance of immature females that never had a chance to spawn, not even once.

Objectively, dead is dead, and those bass killed in the bonus program are just as dead as they would have been if killed by commercial fishermen, yet the “gamefish” folks raise no objection.  They didn’t even object last spring when New Jersey was seriously considering (although it ultimately decided against) amending its bonus program to allow anglers to keep a fish over 43 inches in length which, in Stripers Forever’s words “are the very fish needed to propagate the species back to abundance.”

The impact of such a move might not have been too much different than allowing Massachusetts’ commercial fishermen to catch bass on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but for some reason, the “gamefish” advocates apparently thought it was OK.

To its credit, Stripers Forever did oppose the use of “conservation equivalency” to set recreational regulations, and approach that allowed states such as New Jersey and Maryland to get away with overly liberal rules that resulted in an Addendum VI more likely to fail than succeed.

But no one complained a few years ago when, instead of reducing its recreational striped bass fishing mortality by 20.5 percent, as it was supposed to pursuant to Addendum IV, Maryland actually increased fishing mortality by 50 percent in 2015, and kept it excessively high for years after that.  And the excess wasn’t trivial over that time; Maryland anglers landed about 720,000 bass in 2012, and if they made the required mortality cuts, should have landed no more than about 572,000 in each year between 2015 and 2019; instead, the actual figures for those years were 1,112,000, 1,546,000, 1,092,000, 993,000, and 765,000.

Yet if, by some unlikely chance, Massachusetts’ commercial fishermen end up exceeding their 2020 quota because of the extra fishing days, they will have to repay that overage in 2021, while Maryland’s anglers suffered no consequences at all as a result of their failure to make the reductions required by Addendum IV; Maryland wasn’t even required to amend its regulations when the 2015 overage came to light. 

If anything, Maryland anglers were rewarded for their non-compliance, for when conservation equivalency was calculated pursuant to Addendum VI, it was based on the 1,092,000 fish actually landed in 2017, and not the 572,000 that would have been landed, had the 20.5 percent reduction been achieved.

Given that the average fish caught by anglers in Maryland weighs far more than 1 pound, that means that for the years 2015-2019, Maryland anglers landed a greater poundage of fish, in excess of what they should have landed, in each of those years, than Massachusetts’ commercial fishermen might possibly land in 2020 as a result of the extra fishing days—and even if they land the full 450,000 pounds, they will still be within their quota, not over it.

Yet none of the folks who rail against the possibility of Massachusetts’ commercial fishermen catching their 2020 quota raised their voice when Maryland anglers overfished by so much for so long, and were allowed to get away with it.

Which suggests that hostility toward the commercial sector, and not conservation, drives their efforts.

And that, in turn, affects their credibility when it comes to striped bass management issues.  For it's always easy to conserve someone else's fish, but far, far harder to conserve your own.

The bottom line is that, in order to rebuild the striped bass, we must reduce fishing mortality.  And with 90 percent of the fishing mortality driven by the recreational sector, that means we must focus on the recreational fishery to get the job done.

Yes, commercial landings need to be cut too, and in proportion to the recreational reductions.  But focusing on the commercial fishery, without giving the recreational fishery the attention that its harvest demand, won’t get the job done.

If we want to rebuild the striped bass stock to its full potential, we need to focus on the primary problem, and not waste time on peripheral issues.

And we need to accept that as anglers, the primary problem is us.


Sunday, August 23, 2020


Fisheries advocacy can be a hard and, at times, seemingly hopeless slog.  Too many times, we put in hours—or, in many cases, years—trying to move the management process forward, only to find that our efforts seemed futile.

Sometimes, contrary to science and public opinion, we see the short-term thinkers win, as current landings and current income are deemed more important than the future of a particular stock of fish.

Sometimes, we try to push the process forward, only to see backward-looking managers cling to the paradigms of a forever-gone past, forcing us to rearrange our thinking until, when things don’t get any worse, we can still view it as some kind of win.

Do that for enough years, and it can’t do anything but begin to erode your resolve, and get you thinking that if you never seem to win, maybe there’s no point in keeping up the fight.

These days, I hear that a lot with striped bass, particularly after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s adoption of Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan which, largely because of concessions made to New Jersey and Maryland, is more likely to fail than succeed, and contains no clear plan for rebuilding the striped bass stock—even though Amendment 6 to the management plan clearly states that the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board “must” rebuild the stock within 10 years, once it becomes overfished.

I know quite a few striped bass fishermen who tell me that they don’t even know whether it’s worth trying to affect the direction of the upcoming Amendment 7 to the striped bass management. Because, they say, they know that the ASMFC is more interested in killing fish and maximizing current profits than in conserving fish and providing for a healthy and abundant stock in the future, so why waste time pretending otherwise?

And given the ASMFC’s record so far, it’s hard to provide any examples that support an opposing view.

So instead I just tell them that the battle isn’t over, and that the only time that you truly lose is the day that you lay down and stop fighting.  So long as you fight, you have hope.

So what does that have to do with Bristol Bay, it’s salmon, and the infamous Pebble Mine?

In fact, quite a bit.

For those who aren’t completely familiar with what’s going on in Bristol Bay, here’s a quick primer:

Bristol Bay is a nearly pristine waterway, fed by a system of rivers that host runs of all five species of Alaskan salmon, including the world’s largest run of wild sockeye.  And all of those salmon are completely wild; not a single hatchery scars the watershed’s shores.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency described the region this way:

“The Bristol Bay watershed provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 29 fishes, more than 190 birds, and more than 40 terrestrial mammals.  Chief among these resources is a world-class commercial and sport fishery for Pacific salmon and other important resident fishes.  The watershed supports production of all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America:  sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink.

“…the Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon…

“The Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds—the Yup’ik and Denna’ina—are two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world.  Salmon are integral to the entire way of life in these cultures as subsistence food and as the foundation of their language, spirituality, and social structure…

“These cultures have a strong relationship to the landscape and its resources.  In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least the past 4,000 years and is in part due to and responsible for the pristine condition of the region’s landscape and its biological resources…”

“The Bristol Bay watershed supports several economic sectors that are wilderness-compatible and sustainable:

·         commercial, sport and subsistence fishing

·         sport and subsistence hunting

·         non-consumptive recreation (e.g. wildlife viewing and tourism)

Considering all these sectors, the ecological resources of the Bristol Bay watershed generated nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures and sales in 2009, and provided employment for over 14,000 full- and part-time workers.”

It seems almost too good to be true:  A pristine wilderness with abundant natural resources, that nonetheless generated 14,000 jobs and nearly half of a billion dollars in direct economic benefits each year.

Bristol Bay sounds like a model for economic development in a wilderness setting.

Unfortunately, good things never seem to last, and always end up being threatened.

In the case of Bristol Bay, that threat came in the form of the so-called Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit mine that would gouge a hole a mile square and a third on a mile deep in what now is wilderness.  The mine would consume 35,000,000,000 gallons of water each year, some taken from two nearby rivers, the rest from underground aquifers. 

Substantial construction of infrastructure to support the mine would be required. 

Closest to the site, the mine would require the building of earthen berms to facilitate the creation of vast tailings ponds, which would be needed to store the waste, much of it toxic, from the mining operations.  Leakage from such ponds is inevitable, and in the Bristol Bay region, where earthquakes are far from unknown, the complete collapse of a berm from a seismic event, leading to toxic waste flowing into the salmon’s natal rivers, is a distinct possibility.

On a broader scale, it would be necessary to build a 165 mile long natural gas pipeline to bring fuel to the mine, and another 80 mile long pipeline to transport ore-bearing mine slurry from the mine to the nearest deep water Cook Inlet—where a port would have to be constructed to accommodate the vessels needed to transport the slurry to a refinery.  An 80 to 100 mile long road would also be built to the new port, in order to bring supplies to the mine.  It would probably also be necessary to build overhead power lines to bring electricity to the mine from farther south in Alaska—perhaps from the Anchorage region.

Such development would clearly destroy the pristine wilderness of the Bristol Bay watershed, and poses an existential threat to the health of the Bay’s salmon runs and to the 14,000 jobs that the salmon and other natural resources of the Bay can provide year after year, the Pebble Mine is likely to provide only 1,000 jobs, and only for twenty-five years.

It’s hardly surprising that most Alaska residents, and a large majority of the residents of the Bristol Bay region, oppose the Pebble Mine.

Across the United States, people who understand what the Bristol Bay watershed offers, and the damage that mining there would do, have lined up to oppose the Pebble Mine.

 The sportsman- and outdoor industry-oriented Save Bristol Bay effort has mobilized more than 250 businesses and advocacy groups, and 31,000 individuals, to ask President Trump to stop Pebble Mine.  All of the major environmental organization have come out in opposition as well.

The fight intensified about fifteen years ago, and in March 2014, Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator appointed by President Barak Obama, invoked provisions of the Clean Water Act to place a hold on any development of the Pebble Mine, saying that

“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.”

Although Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian corporation seeking to develop the Pebble Mine, sued the EPA in response, it appeared that the mine’s opponents had scored a major victory.

But President Trump was barely in office four months when, in May 2017, his new EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed the Obama-era hold, and allowed the permitting process for the mine to continue.

Opponents of the Pebble Mine had their seeming victory stripped away, and were forced back into a fight that they had thought was largely over.  And now they were fighting on unfavorable terrain, finding themselves arrayed not only against Northern Dynasty, but against a Trump administration, and an EPA Administrator, more concerned with exploiting and extracting natural resources than in protecting them.

After that, everything seemed to head steadily downhill. 

In July 2019, the EPA formally reversed the Obama-era decision that the Pebble Mine would do irreversible harm to the Bristol Bay watershed and its salmon fishery, bringing the mine one step closer to development.

But the opponents of Bristol Bay hung tough, and continued to fight.

A year later—just a little over a month ago—the Army Corps of Engineers issued its final environmental impact statement finding--to no one’s great surprise, given the history of the Corps--that the Pebble Mine would remove 99 miles of fish habitat from the Bristol Bay watershed but, despite that, would not do significant harm to the watershed or to the salmon fishery.

The Corps went so far as to argue that some of Alaska’s other fisheries are conducted adjacent to various extractive industries, primarily oil and gas, and have not been harmed, noting that

“The Cook Inlet salmon fisheries exist in an active oil and gas basin and have developed headwaters of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna areas.  The Copper River salmon fishery occurs in a watershed with the remains of the historic Kennecott copper mine and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in the headwaters of portions of the fishery.  Both fisheries average higher prices per point [sic] that the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.”

Wilderness values were, of course, not an issue.

At that point, it seemed as if the Pebble Mine was unstoppable, unless litigation might block it, but going to court is always a crapshoot, and seen as a last resort.

Still, the opponents of the Pebble Mine kept fighting, kept asking for help, refused to surrender.

And a few weeks ago, something unexpected happened.

Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son, came out against the Pebble Mine, saying

“As a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area, I agree 100%.  The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with.”

Nick Ayers, the former Chief of Staff for Vice President Mike Pence, uttered similar sentiments.

Early last week, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator and Trump supporter, aired a segment titled “The Case Against Alaska’s Pebble Mine,” where he noted that

“Suddenly, you are seeing a number of Republicans, including some prominent ones, including some very conservative Republicans, saying, ‘Hold on a moment—maybe Pebble Mine is not a good idea.  Maybe you should do whatever you can not to despoil nature…”

Of course, the mining folks are fighting back, with Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, trying to trivialize the opposition by saying

“There is a group of elitist sportsmen in America that want to keep Bristol Bay as their personal playground.”

(“Elitist sportsmen.”  That’s a phrase that advocates of striped bass conservation might just have heard once or twice, cast in their direction.  It seems that wherever you are, folks with no leg to stand on try to win fights the same way.)

Despite Coller’s comments, Pebble Mine opponents suddenly had reason to hope that, just maybe, their fight wasn’t in vain.

Yesterday, they got a bit more good news.

The New York Times reported that the Army Corps of Engineers has decided that the Pebble Mine does pose a threat to the Bristol Bay region, and that it won’t move forward unless and until additional mitigation measures are put in place.  That decision will probably push the permitting process back into next year, when a new Administration, with different views on the value of wilderness, might be in charge.

But even that would provide a chance for the mine to move forward.  POLITICO has reported even more encouraging news, saying that

“The Trump administration is planning to block the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska early next week, six people familiar with the plans told POLITICO, marking a surprise reversal that could be the death knell for the massive copper and gold project.

“…The people said they’re not entirely sure what form Trump’s disavowal will take, although they said it is more likely to come as a rejection of the Army Corps of Pebble’s water permits rather than a veto from EPA, which earlier this year said it would not exercise that power.”

But, in the end, the form doesn’t matter.  Nor does it matter why Trump, who has always seemed deaf to conservation arguments, seems willing to take on Pebble Mine.

Maybe he’s doing it for his son.  Maybe he’s doing it for other Republicans, who understand Bristol Bay’s value, or to placate important donors ahead of what promises to be a very expensive campaign.  Maybe he wants some sort of pro-environment message that he can take into the Republican Party convention; it’s hard to find a better message than one that makes environmentalists happy, makes sportsmen happy, makes Alaskans happy, won’t harm a single American company, and will only hurt the business prospects of foreign mining interests.  That sounds like a win for everyone.

Except, of course, for the Pebble Mine folks.

That’s why you can never stop fighting.  Sometimes, the stars just align, and you catch a break.

I experienced the same sort of thing years ago, when we were trying to rein in a runaway commercial blackfish (tautog) fishery.  Blackfish had been a low-value species, but after an ethnic live-fish market exploded in the northeast, live blackfish became a much in-demand, high-value item.  The stock was crashing right before our eyes.

As usual, the ASMFC didn’t do anything, adopting half-measures and then delaying even their implementation in the face of political opposition.  At the time, I belonged to a conservation group in New York that was trying to get the state to adopt significantly stricter regulations; while New York adopted a few stricter measures, opposition from the commercial and for-hire fleets kept it from doing enough.

Finally, we put together a bill and went to the state legislature, asking them to make it happen.  If we got the bill through, commercial blackfishermen, which had no trip limit at all, would only be able to take 25 fish per day, and gill netting for them would be outlawed.  It seemed like a Hail Mary pass, with virtually no chance of success.

But a friendly lawmaker took up the bill, and it just so happened that the Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee liked to catch blackfish.  So he got the bill through Committee and onto the Assembly floor.  Support in the Senate wasn’t as strong, as commercial fishermen had a little more influence there.

But the Assembly committee chair liked to play bare-knuckle politics, and it just so happened that the Department of Environmental Conservation’s authority to regulate blackfish was expiring.  Unless it was renewed, blackfish would not be regulated at all.  So the Assembly made passage of the blackfish conservation bill a condition precedent to renewing the Department’s regulatory authority, both bills were passed, and the 25-fish trip limit remains on the books to this day.

So yes, the stars did align.

But for that to happen, we had to stay in the fight, even when the odds were against us.

I bring that up to give everyone hope, especially with the new striped bass amendment looming.

Things might not look too good right now.  But when you keep fighting, sometimes unexpected things happen, and if you’re nimble enough to take advantage of them, you can unexpectedly win,

It happened with blackfish.  It looks like it might happen in Bristol Bay.

It can happen with striped bass and bluefish, too.





Thursday, August 20, 2020


I first got involved in fisheries management in the mid-1970s, after meeting the late Bob Pond in the Connecticut tackle shop where I worked during the summers.

Bob Pond is best known as the inventor of the Atom line of fishing lures, some of the first lures designed specifically for striped bass.  He may also have been the first member of the recreational fishing industry, at least on the northeast coast, to realize that the health of his business was intimately tied to the health of the striped bass population.  And he was willing to work very hard for striped bass conservation, and spend significant amounts of his own money on affecting the management process.

As author Dick Russell noted in an obituary in The [Attleborough, MA] Sun-Chronicle,

“Bob Pond was way out ahead of all the experts in sounding the alarm in the 1960s about dangers facing the striped bass, and without his tireless efforts on this magnificent fish’s behalf, we wouldn’t be out there catching them today.  He was a pioneer in ocean conservation, long before the impacts of overfishing and coastal pollution became topics of widespread concern.”

While Mr. Russell was a little off on the decade—it was in the 1970s, rather than the 1960s, that Bob Pond began to warn of a coming striped bass collapse—the rest of what he wrote was right on target.  

When I first spoke to Mr. Pond, he had come into the shop to talk to us about a disturbing decline in the Maryland juvenile striped bass index, which portended hard times ahead, and to ask whether we’d be willing to take a box of sample jars, and return them filled with the reproductive organs of striped bass of both sexes and various sizes, which would then be tested for various pollutants that might possibly be causing striped bass recruitment to drop.

I was bass fishing just about every day back then, and after talking to Bob Pond for an hour or so, was convinced that the striper was headed for trouble.  

As we all know now, Bob Pond was right.  The striped bass stock collapsed, and the recreational fishing industry ended up hurt a lot more by the absence of fish than it would have been hurt by any conceivable set of timely and effective regulations.  And my experience with Bob Pond, the striped bass’ collapse, and its eventual recovery set me on a path of fisheries advocacy that I continue to follow.

Along that path, I met a lot of dedicated people.  Here on the striper coast, they included folks like the late Fred Schwab, a hard-core surfcaster who became an equally hard-core advocate for the striped bass.  Later on, down in Texas, I met the late Walter Fondren and some of the other founders of the Coastal Conservation Association, who invested a lot of time and a lot of cash into rebuilding the Gulf’s red drum population.

As you might have noticed, all of the people I named—Bob Pond, Fred Schwab, Walter Fondren—aren’t around anymore.  They’ve passed on, but before passing on, they first passed the conservation torch to a new generation of advocates, to which I belong.

But now, as I look around, it’s hard to deny that I’m one of the “old guys” moving steadily toward the Grim Reaper’s to-do list, and it’s probably time for folks my age to look, in our turn, to a new generation of torchbearers.

Let’s be honest:  We’ve already had most of our fun.  The decisions that we help shape today will shape our lives, and our angling experience, far less than they will impact folks now in their 40s—and the sons and daughters that those folks are now introducing to the sea and our sport.  It’s appropriate, then, that those who will be most affected by the decisions should be the ones who help shape them; they will still be heavily impacted by what our fisheries look like in 2050.

I, on the other hand, will either be dead or shopping for a good crematorium by then.

Of course, it’s not that easy to walk away and hand the advocacy work to someone else.

In the first place, folks willing and able to take over the job can be hard to find.  There is a steep learning curve.  But most of all,k fisheries work takes time, and that’s something in short supply for someone trying to balance a career and a family, who also wants to get out and fish a bit, too.  Driving a daughter to basketball practice, or taking a son to a Little League game, takes priority over going to a fisheries management meeting.

And a lot of those meetings are held during the day, or even out of town.  In most families, telling your spouse that you can’t take the kids to Disney World this year, because you used up your vacation time going to various fishing-related events, isn’t going to go over too well.  

When I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which at the time involved at least seven three-day meetings each year, I solved the vacation time predicament by taking unpaid leave from my job.  I could get away with that, because we never had any children, and thus no related food, clothing, school, or college tuition payments to worry about   And my wife had a pretty good job.

Most folks don’t have that option, and even if they did, well, I couldn’t seek reappointment to the Council after my first term, because the bank that I worked for was taken over by another institution that had far less regard for employees’ public service, and wasn’t willing to extend my unpaid leave past that first term. 

It’s even worse for folks who work for themselves.  Taking time off might not only cost them the days’ pay; if they do it at the wrong time, it could cost them their entire relationship with an important customer.

Thus, the difficulty of finding someone who, at the peak of their professional and family life, has the time and the willingness to take on an advocate’s role makes passing the torch very hard.

As a result, representatives on the various management bodies too often end up being either cranky but retired old farts, many of whom still live in the past and see conservation as some sort of silly, newfangled notion that was probably inspired by a bunch of granola-munching ex-hippies, or those with an economic interest in the fisheries that they manage.  

In either case, we end up hearing a lot about how things were in 1970, and why we need to turn back the management clock to those good, old, unregulated days, when just about every fish was a keeper, and just about every keeper was kept, even though a fair number of them ended up under the roses or dumped back into the bay sometime later.

That might sound extreme, but I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve gone to where some representative of the for-hire fleet begins talking about how, back in the ‘70s, people went out on party boats expecting to catch enough fish to pay for their trip, and how “poor people” can’t justify fishing anymore because the same regulations needed to conserve fish populations—and give them something to fish for—prevent them from at least breaking even when they go fishing.  Thus, the story often ends, regulations need to be relaxed in order to restore the 1970s status quo. 

The likely impacts of that on fish stocks are never a part of the conversation.

At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, there are some young state fisheries managers who try hard to do the right thing, and some younger legislative proxies and governors’ appointees, too.  But there are still far too many commissioners who have their eyes fixed firmly on the past; as we enter the middle decades of the 21st Century, they spend too much time talking about what fisheries looked like forty or fifty years ago, and too little time thinking about what fisheries ought to look like forth or fifty years from now.

New Jersey’s Governor’s Appointee provided a prime example of that sort of thinking at the April 2019 Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting:

“I’ve also been down this road before; as you made me change my slot limit years ago, when I basically go for a regulations and four years down the road, three years we were not in as bad a shape as we thought we were…”

It’s an interesting statement for a couple of reasons.  The first is obvious; whatever data issues might have existed many years ago have absolutely no bearing on the current data, from a brand-new benchmark stock assessment.  Nor do mistakes make a decade, or maybe a couple of decades, ago have any bearing on what’s needed to keep the stock healthy ten or twenty years in the future. 

But the speaker also uses some old fart-isms that deserve some attention.  Note the use of the words “you made me change my slot limit,” rather than “you made New Jersey change its slot limit,” words that suggest that ego has gotten the upper hand, leaving the speaker unable to make a distinction between his personal preferences and the needs of the striped bass and the New Jersey stakeholders who depend upon a healthy striped bass fishermen for their recreation and, in some cases, their income.

Any scientific advice that contradicts those preferences is rejected as unreliable, while any constituent comments that contradict those personal preferences is dismissed with language such as

“…You know everybody is talking about e-mails that they get.

“You know a form e-mail is very simple to get out.  But go out and talk to the people on the street.  Go out and talk to the people who fish on the docks and the piers, you know the ones that aren’t basically sitting behind a computer, basically out fishing and basically looking to take a fish home and eat it and things like that…

“I grew up fishing on Canarsie Pier and Steeplechase Pier in Brooklyn.  That’s what people wanted to do…”

Because people who care enough to send emails are apparently incapable of being “basically out fishing,” and what went on along the Brooklyn shoreline in the late 1950s and 1960s clearly reflects the situation sixty or more years later.

Another argument for an infusion of youth…

Still, the greatest argument for passing the torch is that today’s younger adults have a far greater stake in the future of our fisheries than people of my age.  

If the striped bass stock collapsed today, I’d probably be too old to benefit from its recovery; if we accept that the bass population hit its low point around1996, and that Amendment 3 to the ASMFC’s management plan, adopted in 1985,sparked the stock’s rebuilding, then it took about 25 years, until 1995, forthe stock to fully recover.

Twenty-five years from now, I’ll be 85 years old, and probably won’t be able to bass fish that much, even though I’ll have plenty of time to do so—if I’m still alive.  So if you’re my age, or older, lax regulations that allow me to take more fish today, at the expense of the future health of the stock, are in your best personal interest.

If I had a fishing-related business, that would be even more true.  I won’t be around to benefit from the striper’s recovery, so it probably makes the most sense to seek regulations that allow me or my customers to kill as many fish as I can, for as long as I can, until the stock collapses, thus allowing me to maximize short-term returns knowing that there will be no long term to worry about.

On the other hand, someone in their 30s, 40s, or even early 50s has many years of angling ahead of them.  If they have an angling-related business and wants that business to last, they know that they will need an abundance of fish to keep their customers happy.  And if they are serious anglers, and have children, they have an even bigger investment in the future, as they’ll want their descendants to enjoy some of the same good times on and around the water that they’ve had.

Those are the folks who need to be managing, and advocating for, our nation’s fisheries.  People who have a big stake in the future, and want to see that future filled with healthy fish stocks.  Not people who keep looking at the long road behind them, because they know that, ahead, they're approaching a dead end.

We need to find those younger folks, and pass the torch on to them.  And then we need to give them all of the support that we can, teaching them how to keep the torch lit, while still allowing them to form their own vision of how to shape fisheries in the years ahead.

Because they, not we, own the future.

Sunday, August 16, 2020


As the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board begins its first unsteady steps toward a new amendment to the striped bass management plan, anglers can only hope that it bases such amendment on science and statistically-demonstrable facts, and not on instincts, opinion and political considerations.

The recently-released report of the Work Group tasked with identifying issues to be addressed in the amendment provided little comfort in that regard, seeming to focus more on bureaucratic and political conveniences such as “management stability” and “flexibility” rather than on the long-term health of the stock. 

It is particularly troubling that the Work Group report seemed, in at least once case, to present unverified assertions and mere opinions as fact, and used such non-facts as one building block of its recommendations to the Management Board.  I’m specifically referring to the comment that

“The [Work Group] has acknowledged that angler behavior varies significantly on both a local and regional level.  In some parts of New England, many fish are released, while in Chesapeake Bay, anglers often wish to keep their allowable catch.”

After hearing Maryland’s Michael Luisi—who, perhaps not coincidentally, was a member of the Work Group that produced the report--repeatedly attempt to undercut conservation efforts by allowing a bigger kill in the Chesapeake Bay, and argue for reducing the female spawning stock biomass target and so permanently reduce the size of the Atlantic striped bass population, it’s easy to believe that such assertion is true.

But is that really the case?  Do the numbers actually support a philosophical divide between New England and Chesapeake Bay anglers with respect to catch and release?

I decided to take a look at the data and to see what it might tell us. 

In order to focus on current angler behavior, under a set of regulations that was more-or-less consistent along the entire coast and throughout the entire time series, I looked at data for every state between Maine and North Carolina for the five years beginning in 2015 and ending in 2019—the span of time when recreational striped bass regulations were governed by Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan, when coastal anglers (except in a few “conservation equivalent” states) were subject to a 1-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size, while anglers in the Chesapeake Bay fished under regulations that were supposed to reduce their fishing mortality by 20.5 percent, when compared to 2012, but actually allowed such mortality to increase to more than `150 percent of what it was in that base year.

The data revealed that the Work Group’s assumption was false.  

While the highest catch and release rates did generally occur in New England, Maryland’s overall release rate for the five-year time period hovered just a few percentage points below the coastwide average, while that of Virginia anglers, who also fish in the Chesapeake Bay, very slightly exceeded that average.  The lowest release rate occurred not in the Chesapeake Bay, but right in the center of the striped bass’ rang, in the State of New Jersey, which the Management Board favored with regulations that facilitated such higher striped bass kill.

For the period 2015-2019, striped bass anglers released about 92 percent of the fish that they caught.  Only three states had anglers who released a lower proportion of their catch, New York (89 percent), Maryland (89 percent) and New Jersey (81 percent).  Given the imprecision inherent in state-level catch, harvest, and release estimates, it’s safe to say that, in every state but New Jersey—but including the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions—striped bass anglers release about 90 percent of all fish that they catch.

Thus, contrary to the assertions made by some Management Board members at the Board’s August meeting, the recreational striped bass fishery can realistically be considered—and managed as—primarily a release fishery, in which high abundance and ready access to fish are paramount, rather than as a meat fishery, in which lower abundance and less access is a reasonable tradeoff to gain a higher level of landings.

It also means that, in terms of catch and release, there is less of a north/south difference in catch and release than people seem to think.  While New England does have higher catch and release rates than the rest of the coast, ranging from nearly 99 percent in Maine down to 95 percent in Massachusetts, the states with the highest total recreational striped bass catch over the five-year period, Maryland (50 million fish), Massachusetts (36 million fish) and New York (21 million fish) all have release rates in a broadly similar ballpark, 89 percent, 95 percent, and 89 percent, respectively.

That pretty much throws the notion that Chesapeake Bay anglers want to harvest more fish out of the window, particularly when one realizes that the Chesapeake Bay anglers were generally fishing on a two-fish bag limit, rather than the single fish bag that applied to Massachusetts and New York.  Such bag would mean that Maryland anglers could, if they had wanted to, retain a higher percentage of their catch than anglers in New York and Massachusetts.

But the similarity between the release percentage in Maryland and the release percentage in New York suggests that they didn’t want to.  And the Virginia release percentage for the five years in question, 92 percent, just about equal to the average coastal release rate, seems to further discredit the claim that “in Chesapeake Bay, anglers often wish to keep their allowable catch.”

After all, a large part of Virginia’s coastline, and a large part of its striped bass catch, falls within the bounds of the Chesapeake Bay.

However, where we do see some big differences in the harvest to release ratio is between the for-hire and other sectors.  In most states, the for-hire sector is much more harvest-oriented than other anglers. 

Over-all, for-hire boats released just 69 percent of the bass that their anglers caught, which was 23 percentage points lower than the release rate for anglers as a whole.

Once again, there was no clear distinction between the New England and the Chesapeake Bay states.

Maine led all of the states in the proportion of fish released, with its for-hire boats returning more than 97 percent of their fish to the water (technically, Delaware for-hires actually earned first place, releasing 100 percent of the fish that their clients caught; however, because that state’s for hire boats only caught about 500 bass during the entire 5-year period, they were not included in the standings).  New Hampshire for-hires came in right after Maine, releasing nearly 95 percent of their striped bass.

But after that, the percentage of fish released by New England for-hires falls off fairly quickly, with Rhode Island boats releasing only 47 percent of the bass caught, a low for the entire coast.  New Jersey had the second-lowest for-hire release rate, 59 percent, followed by Maryland and New York, at 62 and 66 percent, respectively.  Virginia, Maryland’s partner in the Chesapeake Bay recreational fishery, saw its for-hires release 80 percent of their bass, placing them well above the coastwide average.

It’s also worth looking at is how the effort is spread across the sectors.  

Generally, the for-hire sector makes up an extremely small percentage of the total recreational trips taken, accounting for fewer than 2 percent of all targeted striped bass trips coastwide, yet it consistently takes far more than 2 percent of the fish landed.  

When we again look at the three states with the largest recreational striped bass catch, we find for-hire trips comprising about 1.5 percent of the recreational effort in Massachusetts, 4.5 percent in Maryland, and a little over 2 percent in New York.  However, because the for-hire’s release rate is so low, that sector accounted for about 9.5 percent of the harvest in Massachusetts and New York, and over 15 percent in Maryland.

 So yes, some people in the Chesapeake Bay may want to keep the fish that they catch, but those people seem to be disproportionately represented in the for-hire fleet.  When for-hires are removed from the equation, the release rate of Maryland’s shorebound and private boat anglers, who account for more than 95 percent of all striped bass trips taken in that state, is slightly above 90 percent.

Looking at the hard numbers, it’s easy to refulte the claim that Chesapeake Bay anglers are significantly more likely to kill their fish than are anglers farther north.  

If any pattern emerges at all, it is that the State of New Jersey, releases a lower proportion of fish than do anglers either to the north or south of that state.

But that's hardly surprising, given that New Jersey regularly finds ways to finagle supposedly “conservation equivalent” regulations out of the Management Board, in odrder to allow its anglers to land more fish than their counterparts elsewhere on the coast. When a state’s policy is designed to facilitate landings, rather than encourage conservation, it's not hard to understand why such state will have the lowest release rate on the coast.

But, New Jersey aside, anglers' tendency to catch and release their bass is evident everywhere else, from Massachusetts (95 percent) and Rhode Island (96 percent) in the north to Virginia (92 percent, including the Chesapeake Bay) and North Carolina (96 percent) in the south. 

In between there are some outliers, but no clear regional trends.

Despite some language in the Work Group report, and some comments made by particularly fish-hungry members of the Management Board, throughout its range, the striped bass is a fish that supports a largely recreational, largely catch-and-release, and overwhelmingly surf/private boat fishery.

As such, it should be managed conservatively, for a stable and abundant stock, and not for the highest sustainable harvest.

Managing for landings instead of abundance would place the short-term economic interests of a handful of stakeholders ahead of the long-term interests not only of the vast majority of stakeholders, but of the striped bass itself.

That’s just the wrong thing to do.